I was born to a poor London Irish family just after the Second World War in a slum called Notting Hill, which I can tell you was not the Notting Hill you see in affluent West London – or Richard Curtis rom-coms – today. When I was five, my family and I were made homeless because we couldn’t pay the rent. We moved into a space in the roof of my grandmother’s house where we lived for a year before being put in another slum…only to be kicked out of there too.
We had hardly any money, and what little money my parents did get hold of tended to disappear into the pub or on cigarettes. It was their way of coping with the bleak circumstances we found ourselves in. The local authorities didn’t look after us so my brothers and I ended up being taken in by the Catholic Church, by which time my family had fallen apart. I was separated in the orphanage from my older brothers. While they joined the workforce, I was left with other troubled and displaced London Irish kids (which the war had left no shortage of). Things didn’t get much better when I left the orphanage, and I started to get in trouble at school and with the police.
what little money my parents did get hold of tended to disappear into the pub or on cigarettes
The poverty I experienced was extreme, but as I told Jason Flemyng on the More Than My Past podcast, it was all I knew, so didn’t strike me as so terrible at the time. But I have come to believe that it also causes poverty of the mind and spirit. Over the course of my early life, it turned me into an aggressive and nasty person. I remember ignorant, racist attitudes among my impoverished family, which I was only able to challenge after my mind had opened following some travels abroad. They even hated the English, despite living there!
I got into trouble with the law myself, with arson, vandalism and car theft among my adolescent crimes. I was never serious about committing crime to make money: it was just a way to let out some of the hatred I felt for the world.
Crime has some inevitable consequences, and my spells of incarceration began when I was 13. I got shuffled between detention centres, boot camps and reformatories. It struck me that these places had their own ‘class systems’ that made me feel that I had to fight back against the various bullies that I encountered. Unfortunately, it had a really detrimental impact on my mental state and reduced my chances of becoming a decent citizen any time soon. That’s one of the reasons I now argue for a ‘Rolls Royce service’ for our prisoners with regards to mental health: jail gives us a great opportunity to intervene in troubled people’s lives and help them to address the issues that are likely to have got them there.
a brilliant prison officer spotted my difficulties and taught me to read and write
My own life bears this theory out. As a result of my impoverished upbringing and undiagnosed dyslexia, I was illiterate in my teens. But aged 16, while I was serving time in a boys’ prison for stealing and crashing a car, a brilliant prison officer spotted my difficulties and taught me to read and write. I was having trouble with the little words that make sentences make sense, so it wasn’t too difficult to learn once someone was willing to give me the time and attention I needed. I’m eternally grateful to him, not just because it was vital to the legitimate career I went on to have: it was my first lesson that incarceration can be an educational, developmental experience if it’s done right.
Later on, I found myself in a facility that gave inmates work experience in a print department, which was another blessing. I got stuck in, and fell in love with it. In my late twenties, after many years on the run for some earlier misdeeds, I decided it was time to leave crime behind and I handed myself in, made some apologies and paid some fines. Then as soon as I could, I started to get jobs in the print industry using some of the skills and enthusiasm for the craft that I’d learned inside. After working a few jobs, I started my own print business and became quite prosperous, setting up magazines for galleries and working for radical charities (I’d become something of a revolutionary Marxist after a trip to France in my youth, but that’s another story…). The positive, well-paid work I was now doing all stemmed from something I’d learned while I was banged up. I love that.
incarceration can be an educational, developmental experience if it’s done right
The experience I accumulated in the print industry came in handy when I came to do the thing I’m probably most famous for: setting up The Big Issue magazine in 1991. I set it up to enable homeless people to help themselves, giving them the self-respect and pride that comes with earning money.
I’ve begged for money myself – I was brilliant at it – and often give to beggars, but I believe that giving people something for nothing won’t help them in the long run; in fact, it might even leave them worse off psychologically. When I was begging, I learned that it encourages you to feel as sorry for yourself as possible, because looking wretched earns you more money. And that’s not good for the soul.
I often speak to Big Issue sellers, who often come across as much more upbeat than other homeless people. I’ve seen some amazing success stories involving our sellers who have gone on to do incredible things, like Dr. Sabrina Cohen-Hatton. This has really reaffirmed my belief in what we I’m delighted that The Big Issue is still going today.
I must be the highest placed ex-offender in the land!
In 2015, my life’s work landed me a crossbench life peerage in the House of Lords. I must be the highest placed ex-offender in the land! There have, of course, been a few members of the house who have been thrown out for corruption and the like, but I did all my crimes before I went in.
My mission now is to tackle social injustice and poverty through social enterprise and early intervention. I’m not interested in making the poor a little better off – I want to eradicate poverty by giving people a proper route out. I also want to shift the focus of our prison system back towards rehabilitation and the sort of education that helped me get on my feet. During my time in prisons I met some real geniuses who just hadn’t worked out how to use their gifts for legitimate ends. That’s what I’d like to see us really foster. I’m not loyal to any one party, and have no problem working with anyone in parliament who shares my passion for those issues.
As well as my work in politics, I hope my story itself can give people who have been through prison or other difficult circumstances the belief that a better life isn’t beyond their reach. That’s what More Than My Past means to me.